Magazine article The Spectator

Opera Slow Progress

Magazine article The Spectator

Opera Slow Progress

Article excerpt

The Pilgrim's Progress English National Opera, in rep until 28 November The Tempest Live from the Met As usual on the rare occasions when Vaughan Williams's last and largest opera, The Pilgrim's Progress, is performed, the new production at English National Opera has been greeted antiphonally, with cries of ecstasy mingled with indignation that it is so little performed from one side, and moans of boredom and weariness from the other.

Though I am temperamentally disinclined or even unable to take a compromise position on almost any subject, in this case that is what I find myself doing. It seems to me that there are long stretches where The Pilgrim's Progress is serene, noble, elevated, radiant and life-giving, others where it stalls, nothing much happens (in the music more than on stage) and it belies its title: progress is just what, sometimes, we don't get. As well as the qualities listed above, the work needs to possess urgency, since it is Pilgrim's immortal soul that is at stake.

Vaughan Williams was perfectly capable of expressing conflict, as the Fourth and Sixth symphonies show, but he seems better at doing it in the abstract, that is instrumentally, than with individuals or, as here, human types, where he can manage no vigour of illusion. One might have expected that Obstinate, Timorous, Lord Lechery and the rest of them would elicit suitable music, but none of them does. And when he gets to the comedy of Mister By-Ends the failure of characterisation is embarrassing.

Perhaps that is why I have been more moved by concert or semi-staged performances, above all the one given at Sadler's Wells four years ago under Richard Hickox, with the superb Roderick Williams as Pilgrim, than I was by this production, which seemed to duck the difficulties that the work presents. The director, Yoshi Oida, has set it in a prison, though it is one which it is easy for people to enter, if not to escape from. That seems a mistake, since Pilgrim is a traveller, and needs to be felt to be moving along. For several scenes, it is necessary to add to the prison's bars, and we do get views of the Delectable Mountains and of Vanity Fair. But in the latter no amount of crossdressing and simulated nudity can make up for the threadbare music, and anyway the worst that the Fair is guilty of is an incitement to indiscriminate consumerism.

Yet with all reservations registered, this is an indispensably beautiful score, which should and will outlive many trendier postwar works that have been and in some cases still are widely admired. …

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